THEATRE / So how was it for them?: Georgina Brown uncovers the exercises in practical criticism that keep a production fresh

Georgina Brown
Tuesday 01 September 1992 23:02

Not every detail of a production will find its way into a review. 'A member of the audience, unbeknownst to Miss Boycott, brought her chihuahua in to the performance in her handbag. It was noticed when the dog got restless during the first half and the bell on its collar began to ring. It was looked after by Miss Engel for the second half.' That was written by the stage manager of the RSC's last production of King John, and filed, as always, at the end of the evening's performance. The writers of these reports would do well to have a direct line to the diary editors of national newspapers, but their comments have a serious function. Stationed within the wings - though generally peripatetic - and aided by assistants and a couple of monitors displaying the view from the stalls, the stage manager's task is to spot and record the differences from the show as it was on opening night.

It may sound trivial, but this is where Art comes down to good housekeeping. At the National, the RSC, the ENO and Covent Garden, the show reports, which arrive on the desks of the administrators and technicians every morning, provide a factual rendering of the previous evening's events. An extract from a show report for Pygmalion runs: 'Miss Barber caught her toe in a gap in the flooring of the back rostra when exiting after the bathroom scene. The damage was not severe but after the Elocution scene, trying to protect the hurt foot, she misjudged her exit into the slip from the moving rim and ran into the spur, badly bruising her other foot'. Riveting in the way that only the most banal information can be, the style is in sharp contrast to elevated dissections of the critics. ('Barber is just as impressive in the later stages of Eliza's development, letting you see all her pain and disorientation and conveying, with touching dignity, the new astuteness and maturity that enable her to perceive that the real difference between a lady and a flower-girl 'is not how she behaves, but how she's treated' '.)

Having been in on the acts from the first day of rehearsals, the stage manager knows the technicalities of a production backwards, the nuts and bolts, plus all the funny little ways of this fly and that curtain, and how to get round them. Just occasionally, when all is running smoothly on stage, the stage manager has the luxury of recording the audience's response, as for the RSC's Two Shakespearean Actors, in which the stage manager overheard the question 'Which king did Macbeth kill, Henry IV or Henry V?' and recorded that 'Patron left at the beginning of first riot and was sick in the corridor'.

The vast majority of performances pass by uneventfully, to be written off by the stage manager with a cursory 'good reception'. The audience probably did not notice that 'the gramophone horn didn't spin during the pyro sequence'. But this tiny non-event did not elude Pygmalion's stage manager, a perfectionist whose report ensures that the appropriate technician will see to it that tomorrow night all goes spinningly.

Having noted the absentees and illnesses and what appropriate action was taken (RSC's Edward II: 'Miss Behean screamed instead of Miss Kemp, since Miss Kemp is suffering from swollen nodes on her vocal chords' (she has since recovered)), the really vital statistics are the show's running times: curtain up, curtain down and interval length. If a production begins to accrue even a minute or two, the weary stage manager will note that it was 'a very long evening'. At three minutes or more above the norm, questions will be asked and answers must be given. If there is no obvious technical glitch to account for the slackness, such as a missing prop, or a straightforward explanation, such as a bomb scare, the stage manager will prod the actor whose performance has become a little indulgent. No names will appear in the show report.

The stage manager's code is easy to crack but much of the pleasure of the reportage springs from its idiosyncratic style, in particular the genteel archaism of referring to actors as Mr This or Miss That, often at points where 'twit' might have been on the tip of the tongue: 'The reason for the late curtain up time (for The Madness of George III) was due to two things, Mr X (this actor was reluctant to have his identity revealed) had forgotten that we had a performance and another member of the company had signed in with a tick in Mr X's box. It was only when wigs went to his dressing room that we knew he was missing, this was at 7.18pm. I phoned his home and by chance he was in and rushed to the theatre. He said it would take him about 15 minutes to get here and I took the decision to hold the curtain for him as to put the understudy on would have involved changing several wigs and costumes which would have taken as long . . . '.

An astonishing emotional restraint prevails, whatever the crisis: 'Representatives from the RSPCA and Lambeth Animal Welfare were in tonight (records the stage manager on Robert Lepage's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National) and of course for the first time ever Dodger got his paw trodden on, not badly, but producing a yelp'. Whether that yelp provoked another from the two organisations, the stage report fails to disclose. But from between the lines tantalising glimpses of an offstage drama occasionally emerge.

Judging by the show reports, the Dream, staged in a giant mudbath and involving an upended bed, was a technical nightmare: 'The gold bed was very hard indeed to push on, the wheels sank into the soft surface and Mr Meston's feet slipped on the mud. Also it was a very long evening.' It was not all bad, as the stage manager loyally notes: 'There were enough memorable moments to made it a truly exciting evening as well.'

During a performance the safety and comfort of the actors are the stage manager's responsibility, but despite almighty efforts, accidents were inevitable on a stage as slippery as the Dream's skating rink: 'Mr Westwood hit his foot on the base of the upturned bed when jumping on it in Act 3 Sc 1. He split a toenail . . . Mr Spall was kicked in the head by a fairy jumping on the bedframe and Mr Westwood hit his head on the collapsible chair. The nurse was called up for Mr Westwood, who has a nasty lump.'

Another extract runs: 'Extra carpeting had to be put down SR (stage right) in the backstage area during Part 1. Some doubt existed whether we were allowed to do this but as Mr Meston fell and three skidded in about 10 minutes a decision was made to go ahead (by stage management) . . . Miss Ove played with her little finger heavily bandaged and a rubber glove on - she severed the tip last Saturday and has been told to keep it dry.'

And so it goes on with remedies for ailments rather easier to find than the theatre's resident poltergeists: 'Hammering was heard during Part 1 and later on during Part 2. On both occasions it stopped before we could find the source. The bandage on Miss Ove's finger did get wet last night - luckily not as far as the cut. She will wear a surgical glove today.'

Eventually the challenges become both practical and political, as is evident in the note of controlled sarcasm that enters the reports: 'Positions for the footbaths were chosen so that when the problem of who fills them is settled we'll know where to put them]'

A later performance: 'We still have need of footbaths when the dispute is solved. A triumphant batch of performances.'

Triumphant as it may have been, tomorrow is another day: 'Mr Coates got mud in his ear. He saw the nurse who has informed Dr McKeown and she is seeing him again on Monday.'

Then: 'Mr Westwood collided with Mr Meston when they were hanging from the bedframe - he sustained a nasty bump on his eye which will doubtless be black over the weekend.'

And later: 'Mr Coates saw the nurse this morning and, on Dr McKeown's recommendation, went to the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. Some of the mud was taken from his ear and he has another appointment in three days. In the meantime they gave him eardrops to soften the remaining blockage. He is performing with cotton wool in his ear this evening.'

Later still: 'Mr Coates is carefully protecting his ear during the performances and it is improving. Mr Westwood escaped a black eye after all.'

Finally: 'The mud suppliers will be contacted tomorrow to see if there is an agent which will counteract the greasiness.' Wishful thinking, one suspects.

The point of the show reports is to guarantee, as far as possible, that the audience gets the same show - set, costumes, props, lighting - as the one the critics saw. The stage manager, after all, would suffer the shame, and bear the blame, of a shabby bit of scenery. Throughout the National's The Night of the Iguana the stage manager's worries about the state of the jungle are regularly aired: 'During the long break could all the foliage be looked at, there are gaps that show the nets'; later, 'I understand the jungle is going to be redone while we are out. It will be much needed.' But this gentle nudging pales in comparison to the running battle waged by the stage manager of The Madness of George III against The Wall, as the following sequence records:

'I hate to mention the wall again but nothing seems to be happening about trying to improve its behaviour, it is a great let-down to us all.'

'I hate to bring it up again and no doubt people will groan, but still no sign of any attempt to improve the WALL.'

'No news yet on the wall, still very wobbly.'

'The wall has developed a gap at the centre join.'

'A BAD CHANGE into the second Commons scene, the wall is getting more difficult to control and seems to be floating more.'

'The wall is twisting more and more and it is starting to cause problems with opening and closing doors . . . The wall is causing problems and will until something is down about it. Could we at least try to alter it to make it easier instead of going round in circles talking about it.'

It's another drama in the National's repertoire that is set to run and run.

(Photograph omitted)

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